Robert Altman’s follow-up to McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the more elliptical releases of his career – a horror film that was partly extemporized by the actors as it proceeded, producing an emergent eeriness that never quite settles in one place or resolves into one situation. At the heart of it is Cathryn, a children’s author played by Susannah York, who starts to have visions in the apartment that she shares with her husband, Hugh, played by Rene Auberjonois. These visions intensify when she and Hugh take a trip to her childhood home in the Irish countryside, where they are joined by their friend Marcel, played by Hugh Millais, and his daughter Susannah, played by Cathryn Harrison. The only other character in the film is Rene, an old lover of Susannah’s, played by Marcel Buzzuffi, who appears to her in her visions, and who perished in a plane crash several years before the events of the film.
In order to track this situation, Altman takes the audience through three distinct types of horror, all of which riff on the idea of displacement as a horror motif. Most horror films are driven by displacement of some kind, as fears, repressed memories, or unspeakable secrets are deflected into objects, relationships and scenarios in the present. What makes Images a bit different is that it is the process of displacement that drives the horror, rather than any single moment or object of displacement. This process starts in the first act, which takes place in Cathryn’s apartment, where a mysterious voice starts speaking to her through the telephone. Initially, this voice answers when she picks up the telephone, but it quickly starts to speak to her in the midst of other conversations, like a crossed line, before gaining its maximum presence whenever she leaves the phone of the hook, and strays too far from the phones that have been left of the hook. As a result, this first part of the film is largely Cathryn alone with her phone, recalling the first spate of thrillers, like Sorry, Wrong Number and Call Northside 777, that lighted upon the sentient phone as a source of uncanny horror.
This abbreviated first act culminates with the intensified silence of Cathryn’s house with all the phones left off the hook, allowing the dial tone to ring subliminally throughout each room. This ringing seems to bypass or circumvent conventional space, forcing Altman to collapse the spatial scheme of the apartment to keep up with it. As with That Cold Day in the Park, he does so by zooming in and out of sparkling objects whenever moving from shot to shot, using glasses, mirrors, wind chimes and crystal droplets to refract the different parts of the apartment until they feel both as continuous and as dispersed as the dial tone echoing throughout them. When Cathryn and Hugh arrive at her country house, these sparkling surfaces are intensified by two objects – a camera that Hugh has placed on their dining room table, and a mounted deer’s head that he sets up before it. While the relation between these two objects is quite oblique, Altman condenses his crystalline zooms and pans to the camera lens and the deer’s eye, using these two reflective surfaces to refine and distil the ringing that is so prominent during the part of the film, set in Cathryn’s apartment.
As a result, when the action shifts to the country, the voices stop speaking to Cathryn from her phone, and instead start to emanate from the camera and from the deer’s eye – or, rather, from the space between them. This is precisely the space that Altman set up at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, when his extreme close-up blurred the space between Mrs. Miller’s eye and the polished stone it was beholding, situating the audience in a diffuse space that was neither organic nor inorganic, and in which sight was only provisionally available. In Images, this space, the nexus between lens and eye, is likened to the “thinking-stones…terribly rare and hard to find” that drive Cathryn’s series of children’s books. Converging his own camera, and the audience’s own eye, on these thinking-stones, Altman displaces the film from any stable visual anchor, much as Cathryn’s apartment is displaced by the omniscient ring tone, and instead disperses us across a series of slippery interfaces between real and imagined worlds that grow more diffuse and disorienting with each scene.
This leads to the second main source of horror in the film, which revolves around Cathryn’s visions of Rene, her ex-lover. From the outset, Rene doesn’t simply appear, but instead traces and displaces the trajectories left by the other two men in the film, as well as by Cathryn herself. Often, Cathryn will turn away from Rene to realise that he has shifted back into her husband, or else inflect a conversation with her husband slightly to realise that he has shifted into Rene. While Rene’s presence is never really scary in and of itself, the fluidity with which he morphs in and out of reality provides the film with an eerier and more emergent horror, along with a kind of semi-continuity that makes it very difficult to ground yourself as a spectator. Beyond a certain point, Altman doesn’t “correct” the scene when it turns out that Cathryn has actually been speaking to her husband instead of Rene, or vice versa, but instead immerses the audience in the cumulative fluidity of her visions, segueing us between the real and imagined worlds so subliminally that it becomes difficult to discern who she is talking to at any one time, nor where the thresholds of her visions actually exist.
This culminates with the third and eeriest source of horror in the film. Rather than just displacing the characters around Cathryn, Altman starts to displace Cathryn from herself. Upon arriving at the mountain above her country house, Cathryn appears to see another version of herself driving up to the front door. Rather than resolving the difference between these two versions of Cathryn, however, Altman simply cuts to the second version of her, the one driving up to the front door, effectively displacing her with this future or alternative vision of herself. This process becomes more pronounced as the film proceeds, and eventually becomes its main source of horror, as Cathryn perpetually glimpses herself in the future, or another situation, only for the camera to then latch on to this alternative version, making it impossible to discern any single iteration of her. After a while, the camera appears to be perpetually arriving prematurely at each version of Cathryn, and to arrive more prematurely as its displacement of her accelerates, continuously destabilising her as both a source and a witness to horror, and building an incredibly eerie mood around her absence, or her presence, or her presence-absence, since none of these categories ever quite apply.
Rather than displacement involving a single situation, scenario or object, displacement here is an ongoing process that gradually breaks down the distinction between the film and the world that created it. Apparently, Altman only wrote a skeletal script, and depended upon collaborative improvisation from the cast, while the voiceovers are from a children’s book that York actually wrote, and that partly inspired the film’s overarching premise. Rather than come to a “conclusion,” then, the film merely accelerates these displacements, forcing its characters to shift position ever more restlessly and subliminally, until Images plays more like a sustained period of music, or sustained piece of choreography, than a narrative work. Rather than bear narrative fruit, Altman’s film dances around the possibility of narrative fruit, much as the question of Cathryn’s baby is where her body is most dexterously pivoted around itself. Sometimes she wants one, sometimes she doesn’t want one, sometimes she’s had one, sometimes she can’t have one. Her biggest moment of indecision around pregnancy is followed by her seeing her own naked body for the first time. As these oscillations intensify, the point of Cathryn’s body and presence becomes less about providing life, meaning or continuity, so much as keeping those concepts in eerie abeyance by dancing around them as elusively and as evasively as Altman’s own camera and vision.
Like Altman’s previous films, much of this accelerating displacement takes place via sound, as the film abounds with sounds that almost seem to fit the diegesis, but are never quite aligned with it. One of the main inhabitants of Cathryn’s imaginary world are Ums, or man-children, who defy any strict sense of time, since “one thing you can never tell about an Um is his age…nobody in Umbury can count.” Throughout the film, these Ums play as ciphers for the pauses, hesitations and tics between scenes, the slight disruptions to continuity that eventually see the landscape surrounding Cathryn’s house displaced from itself as well. As soon as the action arrives in the country, this landscape demands a vivid spatial imagination from Altman, since it’s torn between sublimely complex topographies and sublimely vacant topographies. One minute we’re in the midst of mountains, valleys and waterfalls, and the next minutes we’re immersed in the expansive emptiness of the moors – an oscillation that suits Altman’s trademark zoom-and-pan so perfectly that his camera often appears to have been dissolved into the landscapes, which look like images from a children’s book, and are typically accompanied by voiceover excepts from Cathryn – and York’s – fictional creations.
As the film proceeds, Altman pivots more and more between small details and vast vistas, showing a proclivity for tiny figures approaching or emerging in the distance, often along oblique or obscured pathways. For the most part, these figures are Cathryn, but also perceived by Cathryn, and are typically connected by radical zooms or pans, which create an effect of radical continuity between each pair of Cathryns, but also take us across landscapes that are so vast that they are effectively discontinuous, not unlike the enormous voids that concluded McCabe & Mrs. Miller. While the pans and zooms might involve one sustained motions, their start and end points are utterly incommensurate, and capture incommensurate versions of Cathryn, until the landscape comes to stand in for the process of displacement, even or especially as it is perpetually displaced from itself as well. As a result, this is easily the most dynamic and pregnant landscape in Altman’s career so far, continually suggesting a significance that it itself displaces, and forcing the dialogue into ever more involuted and cryptic utterances. Most of these turn on the impossibility of securely situating these alternative iterations of Cathryn as doubles, or doppelgangers, in the conventional sense, since the ongoing displacement of her presence and person makes the stability and symmetry of a regular double motif, or regular doubling narrative, untenable: “What’s the difference between a rabbit?” “Nothing: one is both and the same.”
In the process, Altman’s evolving and evocative ensemble outlook – his collective mind – is here condensed to a single psyche, or forces a single psyche to continually displace and reinvent itself. As Cathryn’s mind exerts more of an impact on the material world, the material world grows more ethereal and malleable (“I just thought him away like I thought you here”), until it feels as if we are watching Altman’s own mind processing and remediating the world into his film, or York’s own mind processing and remediating the world into her book. More than in any of his previous films, it’s clear that Altman’s fixation was on precisely this remediation – the way a situation modulates and migrates when channelled through multiple parties and objects – and the way in which it complicated the idea of directorial autonomy and linear narrative. The closest post-war cinema had come to this involution of self was the chamber drama as perfected by Bergman, but Altman exceeds even Bergman in the peculiar horror he glimpses when his trademark vision is condensed to the horror of one mind. Put bluntly, Altman’s aesthetic was somewhat horrific when restricted to an individual – or saw artistic individualism as a kind of horror – perhaps explaining why he only showed this radical circumscription once more, in 1979’s Quintet, and that this was the only other point where his sensibility involuted into a horror outlook.
As with Brewster McCloud, Altman uses driving as a strategy for maintaining the openness of this ensemble world. Whereas Brewster McCloud opted for a chase through an urban landscape, Altman now relies upon a series of long drives across a vast and unyielding moor. Much of the final sequence involves Cathryn driving back and forth across this moor, until she overtakes another iteration of herself, walking on the road. For the first time in the film, Cathryn consciously and deliberately overtakes her own image, before slowing down to let the alternative version of herself come and speak at the window. Rather than displacing one with the other, however, Altman uses this final meeting to displace the film from itself, dislocating sound and images into a surreal closing tableau, in which both versions of Cathryn meet in the shower back in her London apartment. In a surreal riff on Psycho, these two figures can’t compute as doubles or inhabit the same space, since both of their existence stem from, and depend on, displacement. As a result, the film ends with Cathryn displacing this other version of herself in the most dramatic way so far, before the dial tone of the opening scenes, the ultimate agent of displacement in the film, returns, and the credits roll over a jigsaw puzzle of Cathryn’s house being completed before being discarded once again; the perfect ending, or non-ending, to Altman’s strangest riff on his ensemble vision to date, and an ideal launching-pad for the sublime dislocations of The Long Goodbye.